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the Last of the International Harvesters – “Sorry about the burrito” – the VERN – east of Everything

The Last of the International Harvesters, say letters greenly sprayed across a sheet that’s pinned to the beige and olive side of it, channeled like siding, studded with grids and hatches for outlets, hookups, compartments, and wide windows of flimsy sliding glass. Tires of it lost in the grass gown up about them. The scrub that blurs the line between field and copse has crept out over the bumper of it, seized hold of the radiator grille, stretched up to the dully staring headlights, reflectors pitted by rust. Yellow-spined magazines can be seen through dust-streaked windshields, sloppily stacked in the gap between dashboard and curtains. There by it a small enough fire burns, haphazardly contained, licking an untidy pile of sticks in a scorched splotch of grass. She’s bent over it, poking the flames with a crooked stick, light of them slipping red and gold a-sliding cross the blankly opaque lenses of her heavy spectacles.

“Girl’s in it, you know,” says the man sat in one of the lawn chairs by the fire. “You saw how she was with them boys. She ain’t just in it, she’s all the way up in it,” waving a paper-wrapped bottle for emphasis, “nothing but respect.”

“Up in what?” says the other man, leaned against the fender of a hulking pickup parked close by the stranded motorcoach. “What you got going on, Ma?” The dome light in the cab up behind him’s dimly shining, and a song is playing within, faintly chugging bass and tinny soaring horns, than the first time you placed those stale smooth cigarette lips to my mouth.

“Shut that noise off,” she rasps, but not unkindly, poking the fire again. He steps up on the running board of the pickup, reaches in through the open window. The song snaps off mid-swell. “Ma?” he says, stepping down. A cat yowls somewhere back that way, she stiffens, straightens, “That was Hot Soup,” she says, holding up a hand. “Somebody’s coming.” Limps back to the other lawn chair, thick woven straps of blue and white, rickety aluminum frame. The man in the other lawn chair tucks his bottle away in the grass.

“I don’t hear anybody,” says the man by the pickup, after a moment.

“Ain’t nobody coming,” says the man in the other lawn chair, leaning down to pluck up paper crinkling his bottle for a healthy swallow. His T-shirt tight, hiked up to leave a hairy swell of belly above his sweatpants.

“Oh,” she says, “and now you’re the one who says what is, and what isn’t.” Leaning down for a stubby plastic bottle of water from the cardboard flat at her feet. “Cats don’t make a noise like that, unless they have a reason. Better than dogs.”

“Lo que, lo que,” mutters the man in the other lawn chair.

“They will be coming back,” she says.

“Ma,” says the man by the pickup, plaid shirt neatly tucked into his jeans. “You got somebody messing with you? Do I need to stick around?”

“Oh, Mikey, hon, no,” she says, hoisting her bottle to him, a waggling salute. “You’ve done enough. Get on home,” but the whole time, those opaque lenses are fixed past him, the pickup, the sedan tilted beyond it, missing at least one wheel, the little runabout, hatchback sprung, the panel van, a tarp draped out from the side in a makeshift awning, the abandoned trailer rocked back on its wheels, hitch of it uselessly upthrust, past the handful of tents pitched among the cars, a couple of domes, the A-frame there, all vaguely lit by the ambiguous light of the boulevard across the vasty field, the office park beyond the boulevard, and a light flicks on in the A-frame tent, swinging about, blue-tinged, flicking off. Past all that, on the far side of this irregular little parking lot, there’s a low, wide tummock of garbage, cinderblocks and upended pallets, what might be a toppled shopping cart, and light flickers within, another fire, perhaps, but also a brightness sharper, colder, quicksilverly tenuous.

“We’ll be fine,” she says. “Just fine.”

“Sorry about that burrito,” says Jack, gruffly. “They’re pretty good if you can heat ’em up. Instead of,” and he shakes his head, sort of laughs, “room temperature,” he says. He selects a stick from the pile beside his knee and feeds it to the little fire before him, crackling up a prettily assembled cone of sticks and twigs. The slogans on some of the buttons a-clatter on his jacket can just be made out, Psychick TV, Born This Way, Keep Portland Weird, Sex Fossil, I Can’t Help Myself, Stumptown Comics Fest. He looks up, over the low wall of garbage that’s ringed about them, past the ragged darkness of the trees beyond, to the full moon riding clear and high in the brighter black above. “It’ll be clear and dry tonight. Bit chilly. You can have the tent. I’ll be fine out here.” He feeds another stick to the fire, more of a twig really, and looks over his shoulder, to Jo.

She’s laid back against a garbage bag stuffed with something that seems soft enough, sat up just enough to watch the unicorn. The rainbowed effusions of his mane hang brightly in the darkness, spikes and arcs of color that might almost be touched as he snuffles and grazes. He looks up at some distant sound, a yowl well out beyond their little paddock, and those colors whirl and dazzle, settling in gleaming new configurations. “That’s just one of May’s cats, Roy,” says Jack. “You know that.”

“How long have you had him? says Jo, hand splayed over her belly, palm of it and wrist blocking the leering eyes of the devil on her T-shirt, thumb of it atop a small hole charred through, there, by her breast.

“A while,” says Jack. His face isn’t so youthful in the firelight.

“You’ve had a pet unicorn for a while,” she says.

Another stick, a flare of flame. He places it, just so.

“Is that,” she says, “a while, like, years? Months?”

“Weeks,” he says, finally. “Couple of weeks.”

The unicorn’s returned to grazing, twitching that skinny, tufted tail, there by the toppled shopping cart half draped by a tarp, moldering pallet leaned against it, cinderblocks there, and garbage bags, the three or four milk crates, all piled just a bit higher than the unicorn’s upraised head. “Is that,” says Jo, “a couple of weeks, like, fourteen days, exactly?” Sitting up. “Or more like, maybe, closer to ten days.” That garbage bag behind her, and her nearly empty duffle, by one bent pole of a low dome tent, orange and beige, set up atop some wooden pallets, the back of their little corral.

“Who were those guys?” says Jack.

Jo draws up her legs, folding her arms about them, chin on her knee.

“Because they sure seemed to know,” says Jack, but “They were here for Roy,” says Jo.

He looks at her directly for a moment, before turning back to the fire. “Were they,” he says, then.

“He’s a goddamn unicorn,” she says. Roy, absently chewing, steps gleaming about the verge of the fire, black eyes blinking turned toward her. “What happened, ten days ago?” says Jack.

“That’s not,” she says, wrapping more tightly about herself as Roy minces ever closer. “It’s got nothing to do with what happened today, when he,” a sharp breath as the unicorn skitters a hop closer to her, lowering with a shake his shining horn, pushing those slender forelegs, those daintily cloven hooves, shivering stretching his full length out before her, for all the world like a dog. “When he did what he did,” she says, swallowing.

“And what was that.”

“Aw, no.” Jo looks over at him not looking back at her. “Not even I knew you a fuck of a lot better.”

The unicorn curls and folds his awkward legs, settling himself before Jo, laying out the length of his neck with a blowsy snort. Jack hikes up on his knees, shrugs out of his denim jacket, holds it out to her. “I told you,” he says, when she doesn’t take it. “It’s getting chilly.” His black T-shirt says Cadavers Left Around. Eyes on the unicorn, she leans over, gingerly, and takes the jacket from him, wraps it clattering about her shoulders. What Urge Will Save Us, says a button under her fingers, and another, Cruelty Is Always Possible.

“So how do you know those guys,” says Jack.

“Who, Gradasso and,” she pronounces it with exaggerated care, “Pwyll?” She shrugs. “They used to work for me.”

A pop from the fire, a descending crackle. “You were their boss?”

“I was their Duke. Just for a bit.”

Jack sits back. Looks down at the sticks left by his knee. “Duke,” he says.

“Duchess of Southeast,” she says. “The Hawk’s Widow.” She manages not to look away when he looks up at her. “Southeast,” he says.

“Below Burnside,” she says, “and, ah, sunward of the river. But really, practically speaking, only out to about Eighty-second or so. There’s other guys, out past that, Wu Song, Končak, Hopper John, though, I mean, he’s really out in Gresham, I guess,” but she slumps, then, blows out a chuckling sigh. “Look,” she leans away from the sleeping unicorn, reaching over, Jack draws back but she’s snagging one of those sticks left by his knee. “I’ll show you how it works. Portland,” she says, “is divided into, well, I guess it’s five fifths, now.” Sketches a quick circle in the grassy dirt between them.

VERN, say red neon letters over the door. The sign that holds them’s battered, dented, as if struck a mighty blow some time ago, and a T and an A hang lightless from the crumpled front of it. A taxi white and green pulls up beneath it, and the two of them get out, the one on the sidewalk in a red frock coat, puckered with intricate embroidery, and the other, street-side, in a short grey jacket with lots of little pockets and straps, and the sleeves pushed up past his elbows, shutting his door and slapping the roof of the cab, bang! It pulls away.

The bar within lit up in jukebox colors that do nothing to cast much light on anything at all, but the two of them push through without hesitation, past the bar to the right, tables to the left, the small crowd listening to a man on a stool in the corner, savagely striking a whirl-a-gig tune from his elaborately beautiful guitar, flinging chords over an insistently strummed bassline even as thumb and fingertips knock together a percussive floor of thumps and tocks from the soundbox. Past him, and a service window opening on a brilliantly lit white kitchen, through a low wide door into a side room, quieter and darker, even, a line of video poker machines blinking silently to themselves, an unattended pool table, green felt of it under its low-hung lights about the brightest thing in the room. “Kern Gradasso!” booms Chillicoathe, the Harper. “Cinquedea!” He waves them over to one of the red-upholstered booths tucked in the far end. “Pull up some chairs. Have a tot. What’s the news?”

“Peg’s with us, now?” says the Cinquedea, Pwyll, in his red frock coat. Gradasso in his grey jacket folds his arms. The enormous woman sat across from Chilli plucks a red-dusted tater tot from the platter in the middle of the table, her gnarl-knuckled fingers gleaming with glitter-painted scales, purple and grey. Chilli smiles somewhere in his big yellow beard. “Daisy here can clearly see which way the wind is blowing,” he says.

“Keep playing with my name like that,” she growls. “The wind will change.”

“Oh, not this wind,” says the third of them at the table, the red-headed man wedged against the wall, looking up to the woman beside him. “Can’t you feel it?” His windowpane tie loosely knotted, tucked into his tightly buttoned vest. “A gentle breeze, perhaps, for now. Almost pleasant. But it’s constant. It will not stop. And every day it blows, it blows away a little more of her majesty’s great pile of golden dust. And every day it blows away a little more than the day before. It won’t change. It will,” he taps the table, “not” and again, “stop. And when that pile is done and gone,” slam, the flat of his hand, “you think another will just, magically appear?”

Chilli lays his hand over that hand on the table. “Brother Stirrup will wax eloquent. But the plain and simple fact remains, Pegling Meg: the Queen is done.”

“Done,” she says, sitting back, booth creaking under her bulk.

“Has she a Bride?” says Pwyll, dragging a chair close to sit himself on it.

“What about toradh?” she says.

“What about it?” says Gradasso, leaning over for a couple of tots. “When any knob or churl might nip in off the street to fill their pockets, at any hour of the day, and no one to portion it properly.”

“Any knob not of the Hound,” mutters the Stirrup.

“She’s exiled our own Duchess, Gretel,” says Chilli.

“Actually,” says Gradasso, licking his fingers, but Chilli’s carried on, “She’s taken Southeast for her own, and named another gallowglas to be her Huntsman!”

“No, but, Harper,” says Gradasso, but Chilli’s leaning over that platter of tots, finger pointed up at the woman across from him, “So who’s to do for us, but us, Sweet Marguerite?” She cocks a skeptical brow. “Chiseauvert?” he says, and she sighs. But his smile’s back.

“So, Harper, funny thing,” says Gradasso, but that pointing finger’s beckoning to the Stirrup, now. “Make with the map,” says Chilli.

Gaveston, the Stirrup, presses himself with a grimace against the wall to make the room he needs to reach within his vest. He tugs out a colorful map that he unfolds across the table, heedless of the leaf that lops over the platter of tots. “Where’d you guys end up?” says Chilli, spreading his hands to smooth it out.

Pwyll hikes up in his chair to lean over the platter, the map, those hands, to plant a finger in the far upper right, by the thick blue river running along the top of it. “Airport Way,” he says.

“Well Number Two,” says Gradasso, and then, “well, the field behind it. Hard by the slough,” as Chilli moves to make a careful X on the indicated oblong with a thick black marker. “Huh,” he says. There are other Xes on the map, a handful or so, but all of them down and in, close by the other river, that runs from bottom to top. “What was it?” he says. “Another by-blow?”

“What was what,” rumbles Greentooth.

“The bang this morning,” says Pwyll, sitting back down. She shrugs.

“What was it?” says Chilli, snapping the cap back on the marker.

“Don’t know,” says Gradasso, chewing.

“There was this, complication,” says Pwyll.

“I was trying to say,” says Gradasso.

“Then say it, blast your eyes!” snarls Chilli, but Pwyll leans forward to say, “More of a who,” and picks out a tot.

“What?” says the Stirrup.

“Do tell,” says Greentooth.

“Who,” grates Chilli, glaring at Pwyll.

“Herself,” says Gradasso, looking at his nails.

“Who?” says the Stirrup.

“Herself,” says Greentooth, half a question.

“But this,” says Chilli, perplexed, “this is east of everything.” His fingers stray leftward a moment from the fresh X to tap a knot of access roads and ramps there, just before the yellow swoop of highway crosses the blue river along the top. “She was always more like to set up somewhere around Smith and Bybee,” those fingers lifted, swept off to the left, a patch of green on the very tip of land where the two rivers meet. “When she wasn’t up the island,” he says.

“Her grace?” says Gradasso, frowning.

“Her awfulness,” says Chilli.

“Herself,” says Greentooth.

“No,” says Pwyll, as Gradasso says, “Her grace never,” and the Stirrup says, “Wait,” and “Harper,” says Pwyll. You’re twisted. Old Nineteen Names is still shacked up with the Gammer.”

“She is the Gammer,” mutters the Stirrup.

“We saw her grace,” says Pwyll.

“Jo Gallowglas,” says Gradasso.

“The Duchess Exiled,” says Pwyll.

Chilli blinks.

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Charm City,” written by Jenny Toomey, copyright holder unknown. When,” written by Patty Larkin, copyright holder unknown.

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